Steven J. Murdoch

Sitting in a hallway at University College London, there is a cabinet in which you'll find a wax head mounted on a dressed skeleton, seated politely. The man requested that he be interred this way, dressed in his clothes from 1832, the year of his death. And because he was an influential philosopher, his wishes were followed, and he's been looking out on the goings of the college for more than 150 years.

Who is this man? Jeremy Bentham, the man who dreamed up the idea of the panopticon, a circular prison in which a central observation area put all prisoners under the impression of constant surveillance, augmenting traditional measures of control with unceasing scrutiny.

The pantopicon has emerged as a—perhaps the—symbol of the post-Snowden era, as Internet users realize that just about everything they do on the open web is tracked by something, whether it's a corporation or the NSA. And that the logic and mechanics of surveillance are being extended to the physical world as our things become networked, too.

Into this environment, some cheeky British academics have added the perfect addition to Bentham's memorial: a livestreaming webcam has been mounted on the cabinet of what is called his auto-icon. The creators of the Panopticam taglined it "watching you watch Jeremy Bentham." The Panopticam has a Twitter feed and is always watching.

Planning for the project began two years ago, according to Melissa Terras, director of the UCL Centre Director for Digital Humanities. "We were having a meeting about the informational touch screen that sits in front of Jeremy Bentham, and we joked that we should put a webcam in Jeremy’s head. (We’re funny like that at UCL, he is a real part of our culture)," Terras wrote in a blog post about the project. "Then the questions started… what would it take to get a network cable into his box? Would we get ethics clearance to do this? What was the best way to go about it, and was there any real point?"

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They decided there was, mounted the camera in October, and finally, livestreaming began on February 25. A whole host of UCL institutions collaborated on it: the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Centre for Digital Humanities, UCL Public and Cultural Engagement, and UCL’s Bentham Project. They call it "a tongue in cheek comment on Bentham’s ideas of his Panopticon 'inspection house,' but also note that it will be used to test algorithms for counting museum visitors with computer vision.

Even without the webcam, which adds a delightful smirk to the whole situation, the auto-icon's story is remarkable. This was Bentham's precise request to his executor in his will:

The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of time employed in writing. I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor. He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me.

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Originally, his real head was supposed to be part of the auto-icon, but unfortunately, "the process of desiccation, as practiced by New Zealand Maoris, went disastrously wrong, robbing the head of most of its facial expression, and leaving it decidedly unattractive." Hence the wax head. The real head sat on the floor between Bentham's legs until it was placed into a protective box.

Given his unconventional desires, somehow, I think Bentham would approve of his photographic upgrade.

Hat tip to Dan Cohen, head of the Digital Public Library of America